Monday, March 10, 2008

Literacies Olde and New

My school is in the first year of implementing a 1:1 laptop program in grades 9-12. Right now only our freshmen have laptops. Next year they'll be sophs, with laptops still, and our entering froshpersons will be getting theirs. And so on. One of the discussions that we have been having within departments and throughout the school at large is how to make the technology work to help us do better what we already value. The strategic question is how do we make the laptops an enhancement and not a distraction? There is a certain amount of what I think is well-justified anxiety around the issue of time.

As in most schools, we have a certain proportion of students who in truth cannot be said to have mastered the basics. Our departmental mission statement reads

We are committed to provide an environment where students can learn to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature.

The mission statement is carefully phrased. It does not claim that all, or even any, of our students are doing these things at any given moment. It says that we are committed to providing an environment in which they can learn to do these things. Whether or not they in fact do so has something to do with us, something to do with them, and something to do with the tools we put in their hands.

For many generations the primary tools that students have been asked to employ have been the book and the pen. That's what "literacy" was understood to be all about. It has been more or less an article of faith that one learned to be a better reader by reading broadly and deeply, and that one learned to write by writing regularly and with close attention to what one had been reading. Learning to read well, or to write well, was properly understood to be a time-intensive process, one that requires a lot of practice, not to mention a willing mind. Traditionally, most of the time spent in English classes, and in work done for English classes, has been time spent reading literature and then talking about it and writing about it. Even in the good old days, there never seemed to be quite enough time to guarantee the kind of progress one might hope one's students might make.

It's no surprise to any of us that the ground is shifting beneath our feet. New technologies have evolved which seem to imply "new literacies" as well. But how, even in the best-case scenarios, will these new literacies co-exist with the old ones? The challenge to us as teachers is to figure out what the proper balance will be. Should new literacies supplant the core literacy skills? Supplement them? Enhance them? Given that I have 56 hours each semester with my students, how much of the time that I used to spend all of in a not-always-successful attempt to help them master core literacy skills can I now in good conscience give up in order to have them consider alternative literacies?

There's a further problem as well. We have well-established standards of quality for traditional literacies. We know how to tell what is good from what is not good. But what are the criteria for judging the quality of say, a music video, or a photo essay, or a podcast of a public service announcement?

A recent post by Artichoke lays out the dilemma nicely:

Clarifying what the new media literacies involve nudges at the back of my mind every time I listen to a student podcast, interact with a student webpage, read a student blog or view a student-created movie ... which means I have been trying to critique the critical literacies that the students have used/failed to use in their intended communication for deep understanding for quite a while.

And it is not an easy task ...

For whilst we have well established criteria and clearly outlined indicators – those specific, measurable, achievable, relevant targets and success criteria for strategies to meet the purpose of tasks within the primarily text based content of the old literacies in education, we do not seem to have not developed these to the same degree within the visual, audio, tactile etc participatory context of the new literacies. Which is why I am so often made anxious when I listen to student created podcasts, view students’ digital movies and or read student blogs ... I am made... uncomfortable when teachers eschew well-established textual literacy standards in favour of a similarly ill-defined cultural intuition as their students to assess the new content broadcast by students working in these new media landscapes – an approach that sees far too many of them confidently sharing cringe-worthy student creations as examples of new literacy excellence.

How can we avoid betraying both content and process when we introduce blogging, videomaking, podcasting, wikis, webpages and other Web2.0 applications (like social bookmarking, collaborative authorship [text, concept mapping, spreadsheets, timelines], image sharing, calendar sharing, video sharing, book sharing, voice sharing [pod casting], presentation sharing, social networking, communication text, communication voice, blogging, RSS feeds, digital storage, geographical mapping, customisable start pages etc) as useful new literacies to the 21st Century learner? How can we avoid education in the new literacies becoming an example of “corruptio optimi pessima” the corruption of the best is the worst of all?

Those are all good questions, essential questions, questions to which I do not have ready answers but only a sort of qualifed optimism that somehow we'll be able to work it all out as we go along.

I've been trying, over the last two years, to find ways of using technology to supplement and, when possible, enhance the level of engagement that students have with the material they are studying. I've had to cut back some on the amount of material we cover; we are, for example, reading fewer books now than we were a few years ago. But we're doing more writing, and more different kinds of writing, and the students are sharing that writing more broadly - both with one another and with outside audiences - through the use of blogs and wikis, and, more recently, Moodle. It's been a tradeoff, a balancing act. But I have been teaching sophomores. The laptop kids aren't at my door yet. And I'm hoping that by the time they are here I will be ready for them.

1 comment:

Miguel said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm applying for a tech immersion grant that will achieve 1 to 1...your thoughts on this topic are a joy to read and help me to better understand the challenges.

Thanks for being out there in front,


P.S. I tagged your for a new meme. More at